The Fail Whale

Before joining 500 Startups as Creative Director, Yiying Lu‘s best-known work was “Lifting A Dreamer,” an illustration depicting a Beluga whale airlifted by a small flock or birds.

In 2008, Twitter licensed the image so it could display it to users when the service was down, which immediately raised Lu’s profile.

500 Startups Creative Designer Yiying Lu

500 Startups Creative Designer Yiying Lu

“I had no idea where Silicon Valley was,” said Lu. “I literally typed it into Google Maps, but it didn’t show up! I was kind of clueless about this center of innovation and tech community.”

After visiting the Bay Area from Sydney, Lu quickly connected with tech folks who appreciated her work, including 500 Startups founder Dave McClure.

“He came to me during a party and said to me, ‘Hey, are you legal here?'” said Lu.

“I originally was contracting with 500 and working with a lot of portfolio companies without knowing they were all coming from 500,” said Lu, who’s been helping founders solve design problems since Batch 1.

After years spent teaching graphic design, working with several global advertising agencies and running her own design studio, Yiying Lu moved to San Francisco in March 2015 to become Creative Director for 500 Startups.

In your bio, you describe yourself as a “branding dream architect.” What does that mean, exactly?

Content is king, and engagement is the queen. It’s really when you put the king and queen together, that’s when the dream comes true. No matter how amazing the product is, if there’s no engagement or marketing magic, it doesn’t acquire more people.

The work that I’m doing is very organic and can’t be easily quantified. But, it’s something that I’ve seen as crucial for startups at all stages.

Creative Director sounds like a big job. What takes up most of your time?

I don’t see it as a job or a career. Everyone who works at 500 is always ‘on,’ so this is more like a calling. The reason that I decided to move here was to bring more creativity and art to the tech community.

The work that I’m doing consists of different things.

One is the 500 umbrella brand, which is basically working with the team, whether that means business development or venture partners.

For example, I just designed a logo for Geeks on a Plane and the PreMoney conference, as well as our most recent VC Unlocked class.

One of the things I help with is to bring out more fun out of the functionality. As someone who’s working on the creative side, I have to interact with every single team member to understand their needs so I can come up with solution that will make everybody feel more engaged with the company itself.

It’s not only engagement with the potential LPs or new accelerator members, but also increasing engagement among people on the 500 team.

What does it mean to “bring art to the tech community?”

I have a little line for my design philosophy: form follows functionality and fun.

We’re not lacking in functionality — every company understands what they do, the products they’re selling and the infrastructure they’re working with. These are very masculine aspects of a company.

The more feminine aspect is the company culture, which isn’t something that can directly be a selling point, but eventually, once we balance the two, it becomes an enormous and defensible asset for the company.

Once you’re working at 500, you know you’re working with a lot of crazy but talented people.

What are the biggest challenges facing a designer who works exclusively with startups?

The most challenging part is mindset.

I work with a lot of different CEOs. Some of them know exactly what they want, but they’re not open to new ideas. Others just don’t know what they want.

I dislike the way people call design collateral as “swag.” People see marketing as a way to sell. People are focused on the result of what they get, but that’s not supposed to be the motivation.

If you’re only going for a number, it’s not going to to work in the long run, because you’re not putting your heart into it.

Steve Jobs took a typography class in college because he loved it, not because he thought it would help him make a lot of money. Design education and art education are inherently important, and that’s the much bigger problem that we’re facing. The respect for science and the respect for art should be equal.

I believe that the best way to learn about an organization is through storytelling, so I’m focused on visual storytelling.

Serving the accelerator, 500’s growing portfolio and ongoing events must keep you busy.

Quite a bit. Usually, for Marketing Hell Week, I’ll give a design class with an overview of branding to showcase how to communicate the reason why you’re running this company.

Everybody knows what they do and how they do it, but to really connect with the customer or potential hires, you must tell them why you’re doing it. Visually communicating that idea is what I do. Translating the ‘why’ into something visual, whether that’s through a picture, storytelling, icon creation, a logo or a branding style guide.

Even though I’m working as Creative Director, I do a lot of partnerships, that are outside of my usual scope of work. In addition to our umbrella brand, I also give design classes and provide office hours to 500 portfolio and Accelerator companies.

We had a Geeks on a Plane event where I came along as a geek, but I was also presenting and spoke to an audience for the first time in Japanese, which was a first. It was great for the company, but being able to see myself grow is also a very exciting thing.

I don’t sleep. I navigate with a working pipeline — I prioritize projects to see how much impact it’s having on the company.


What specific impact do you feel you’re making?

We have a company saying: “have fun, and get s*** done.”

We had a retreat where we gave out two peer-assessed rewards — one for having fun, and another for getting s*** done, and I won the having fun award.

Several of the team members said the fact that I’m making people happy and bringing them together; having the opportunity to be the catalyst for this is more than I could have hoped for. It’s the customer delight that I bring to the company.

In all honesty, why did you join 500?

I was excited about working with startup companies because I had been working in a more academic environment. When I was teaching, I was always questioning the university way of doing things, and the fact that there’s no real client.

Working with startup companies, I see the impact immediately — an idea becomes a product, and the product is instantly pushed out to market, where you see people using it in real time. To me, I think that’s more in line with what I’ve wanted to achieve — to have a real impact into what I’m designing for.

I’m not just doing design for design’s sake.

Given its unique structure as a hybrid accelerator / events / seed investment machine, did you experience culture shock after joining 500 Startups?

Initially, I was contracting with one or two companies per Batch; we would do an in-depth analysis of their logo and brand, a branding style guide, and I’d go through their UI and UX to give them feedback.

After I moved here, I was still contracting with the accelerator program and when a previous marketing director and she was asking me to work on an info graphic which was to be published the next day, a rush project.

I got the project around 4 pm and was in a meeting until 6:30. When I came back to the office after a dinner break, I opened the door, and it was a full house of people. It was the night before Preview Day, so everyone was practicing their ass off. The energy in the house was incredible.

I locked myself in a conference room to work, and every 10 or 20 minutes, people would come in and ask how I was doing and what I was working on, bringing me food. I thought, ‘this is amazing! It’s better than college.”

A lot of developers work with headphones on. What’s your preferred work mode/setting?

I actually like ambient sound, I don’t mind it. I like to interact and don’t mind being interrupted if I’m working on something.

What are your favorite non-tech brands?

Disney is a really great brand. It’s interesting because it’s not just entity, like Procter & Gamble, it’s more like a personal brand that later on became an enterprise, which I think it fascinating.

The other brand I really respect and admire is Hermès, the French fashion house. The elegance and individuality of Hermes is spelled out in their shop design, the way they carry the pattern and , bt the other great thing about them is that they’re still so individual and boutique.

Has living in San Francisco changed your aesthetic?

I’ve only been here for a year, but it’s very strange; it just feels like home. I don’t think living here has changed me, but it’s really brought out more of me. I’m more open to talking to strangers on the street, which is not something I would naturally do. I don’t think San Francisco is changing me, but it definitely brings out my true self in some way, and I really appreciate that.

Can you name some of your artistic influences?

I’m a huge fan of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.

OK, which would you rather do: be roommates with Dali, or drive to LA with Magritte?

I really have no idea! Can I do both?